Once upon a time, I almost was proud of Al Mohler.
Mohler and I were classmates at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the early 1980s. If I ever thought of him back then, it was “Oh, yeah, the kind-of-nerdy guy who wears a suit every day so he can work in Dr. Honeycutt’s office.” (Roy Honeycutt was the seminary’s president back then.)
About a decade later, Mohler returned to Southern Seminary. As president. Turns out, he used his job as a student worker in Honeycutt’s office to network with the fundamentalists who were taking over the Southern Baptist Convention, which owned the seminary. He built the platform for his future by currying favor with the people who were preparing to undermine the denomination’s institutions and throw out their leaders.
So, Mohler rode a political juggernaut painted in theological colors back into the president’s office at our alma mater. He jerked the school hard to the right, specifically by firing or running off faithful, Jesus-loving faculty members and replacing them with a mix of fundamentalists and uber-Calvinists.
“Mohler’s moral compass occasionally could point true north. Or so I thought.”
After that, I didn’t think kindly of Al Mohler. Well, except the time he got sick and nearly died, because I think kindly of people who get sick and nearly die.
But then came 2016.
That fall, after the whole world listened to a tape of presidential candidate Donald Trump brag about grabbing women by their genitals, Mohler stepped up. He wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post in which he called Trump’s boasting about rape “a national disgrace” and predicted Trump’s election would be “the Great Evangelical Embarrassment.”
“I am among those who see evangelical support for Trump as a horrifying embarrassment – a price for possible political gain that is simply unthinkable and too high to pay,” he wrote. Evangelical leaders must be stewards of their influence, he added, noting that “leaders are held to a much higher standard, and continued public arguments that offer cover for Donald Trump are now not only implausible but excruciating.”
Somewhere, deep in his self-righteous, judgmental soul, Mohler’s moral compass occasionally could point true north. He could set secular politics aside and step out from the evangelical majority to speak a prophetic word. Or so I thought.
Despite plenty of other embarrassing statements in the meantime, that through-line seemed to reappear last fall, almost exactly a year before Election Day 2020. On Halloween, Mohler tweeted he would be willing to be nominated for president of the SBC.
In itself, Mohler’s candidacy wasn’t surprising. Other seminary presidents have served as convention president, and it is Mohler’s only unpicked plum on the SBC tree. But the timing – seven and a half months before the SBC’s annual meeting – was intriguing. Candidates usually announce in late spring ahead of the vote in June.
Mohler has been an SBC insider almost 40 years. Moreover, in the denomination’s evangelical domain, he could be seen as a centrist candidate. Convention observers theorized Mohler could get out front early as a shoo-in and ward off other hopefuls. This would save the SBC from an embarrassing scenario in which candidates campaigned on their love – for Trump, not Jesus.
But now, this. As reported in the Washington Post, Mohler has announced he will support Trump in this year’s presidential election. Apparently, Trump no longer is “a horrifying embarrassment” to evangelicals. After one term of the Trump presidency, endorsement for political gain is no longer “too high a price to pay.” After so much moral relativism the past few years, the “much higher standard” evangelical leaders must uphold isn’t all that high.
Why Mohler’s reversal? Only he knows for certain. But perhaps a couple of factors are at play.
This winter, a group calling itself the Conservative Baptist Network announced its formation in order to reboot the “conservative resurgence,” which Mohler rode to prominence a generation ago.
“There are some very concerning things happening in Southern Baptist life,” a network spokesman said. One of the “concerning things” members of the latest ever-rightward SBC movement don’t like is the leadership of Russell Moore, a former Mohler protégé who heads the convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. A Never Trumper, Moore has advocated separating religion from political parties and spoken passionately on significant issues, particularly lambasting racism. For his efforts, he had drawn the ire of the right wing of the SBC.
So, even though Mohler doesn’t have to worry about getting beat for SBC president (the convention canceled the annual meeting because of the coronavirus pandemic), perhaps he realized the SBC’s political winds are blowing to his right. He still has a seminary to keep running, with money to raise. So, staying in good graces with evangelicals who still back Trump by almost 80 percent (and the SBC is a complete subset of evangelicals) is good for business.
Maybe it’s more personal. The Post article reported Mohler’s son-in-law, Riley Barnes, is a senior adviser in the State Department. Perhaps the Mohler family has more than religious posturing to gain by his endorsement. Trump loves loyalists and abuses dissidents.
“‘Pro-life’ is meaningless except to illustrate the depths of moral hypocrisy.”
All that aside, when we take Mohler at his word, the dis-ease deepens. Not only did he say he would vote for Trump in 2020, but he would vote for Republican candidates the rest of his life, unless the party changes its platform. Most specifically, that has to do with abortion.
Evangelicals such as Mohler claim to be pro-life and shape their politics to support candidates who likewise claim to be pro-life and who will stack the federal judiciary with pro-life judges.
Their position is hypocritical, because they are not pro-life. They are pro-birth. These evangelicals such as Mohler make a big deal about getting babies out of the womb, but those babies are on their own when they get into the world. If pro-life mattered, they would protect all of life, not merely the first breath of life.
This moral inconsistency began long ago and extends up to this minute. “Pro-life” evangelicals have been on the anti-life side of a string of issues. They consistently have:
- Voted against candidates who actually drive down abortion rates by addressing poverty, hunger, income, childcare, mental health and domestic abuse.
- Maintained support for capital punishment, even as evidence of wrongful convictions mounted.
- Resisted even modest gun controls, such as background checks to keep firearms out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill, as well as restrictions on guns built solely to kill large numbers of people.
- Worked against state and federal programs that would ensure pregnant mothers and children get the medical and food resources they need to be healthy.
- Opposed infrastructure that enables at-risk children to obtain the educational tools they need to become healthy, self-sustaining adults.
- Ignored issues of racial justice – from wage inequality to voter suppression – that state some lives are worth less than others.
- Looked away when the government inhumanely separated immigrant children from their parents and created immigration protocols designed to inflict maximal pain and suffering on weak and vulnerable people.
- Defended the current president when he consistently made up “facts” and put the lives of people at risk of COVID-19 behind the supposed welfare of business interests.
- Chuckled when a top state official said grandparents should “sacrifice” their lives to keep business going during the pandemic.
“Pro-life” is meaningless except to illustrate the depths of moral hypocrisy.